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War of the Pacific, 1879-83

Two naval guards at the monument to the War of the Pacific in front of the Naval Headquarters, Valparaiso
Courtesy David Shelton

Despite cooperation among Chile, Peru, and Bolivia in the war against Spain, friction began to develop over the mineral-rich Bolivian province of Antofagasta and the Peruvian provinces of Tarapacá, Tacna, and Arica, whose wealth was exploited largely by Chilean enterprises. In 1875 Peru seized Chilean nitrate mines in Tarapacá, and in 1878 a new Bolivian government greatly increased taxes on Chilean business interests. To protect these interests and preempt their threatened expropriation, Chile dispatched a naval squadron headed by the ironclad Blanco Encalada and landed 200 troops at the Bolivian port of Antofagasta on February 14, 1879, provoking a declaration of war by Bolivia on March 1, an action reciprocated by Chile on April 5. Peru, which had concluded the secret Treaty of Mutual Defense with Bolivia in 1873, was now also drawn into the conflict (see The Liberal Era, 1861-91 , ch. 1).

The Bolivian Army, with 2,361 members and generally antiquated equipment, and the Peruvian Army, with 5,241 members and a mixture of modern and older equipment, opposed the comparatively wellequipped Chilean Army of 2,845 officers and enlisted personnel. The Chilean Navy, still under the command of Admiral Williams, had two new ironclads (the Blanco Encalada and the Cochrane), four unarmored steam corvettes, and two gunboats. These vessels faced a Peruvian force consisting of an ironclad frigate, a small ironclad turret ship, two monitors, an unarmored steam corvette, and a gunboat.

Neither Chile, Peru, nor Bolivia was prepared for war. While they were mobilizing their land forces, any major actions were confined to encounters between the Chilean and Peruvian navies. Bolivia lost its three warships and four Pacific Coast ports early in the war. The naval war commenced with simultaneous bombardments of Pisagua and Mollendo by the Chilean fleet, followed by blockades of Callao and Iquique.

The Chilean expeditionary force at Antofagasta, reinforced to a strength of 1,400, occupied the ports of Cobija, Tocopilla, and Mejillones, penetrating inland against weak resistance as far as Calama. No further major land actions occurred for the next five months. However, by the middle of May 1879 Bolivia and Peru, having expanded their ranks with mostly peasant conscripts, had concentrated 9,000 men at Tarapacá, 4,000 at Tacna, and an additional 7,000 in the vicinity of Arica.

Peru gained a Pyrrhic victory in the first naval action of the war. Its most powerful ships, the ironclad frigate Independencia and the turret ship Huáscar, closed in on the two Chilean ships blockading Iquique on May 21, 1879. The Peruvians broke the blockade, sinking the Chilean corvette Esmeralda as her captain, Arturo Prat Chacón, led a boarding party of the Huáscar in a heroic but futile act. However, the Independencia hit a reef and sank as it was pursuing the fleeing Chilean gunboat Covadonga, which had sought refuge in shallow waters. Despite the loss of its largest unit, the Peruvian fleet remained a great menace, mainly owing to the audacity and genius of Admiral Miguel Grau. Flying his flag on the Huáscar, which, together with the corvette Unión, broke through the Chilean blockade of Callao on three occasions, Grau wreaked havoc on Chilean shipping.

Chilean naval energies were now largely directed toward the elimination of these two Peruvian ships. On October 8, 1879, Grau's luck ran out when he skirmished with two Chilean flotillas off Punta Angamos. The Huáscar was captured after the heroic admiral was killed, although the Unión escaped. The following month, the Peruvians suffered another major setback when the gunboat Pilcomayo, operating as a commerce raider, was sunk by the Chileans. Chilean naval supremacy was now complete. The surviving major units of the Peruvian Navy remained blockaded at Callao and Arica, and any naval action was limited to the minor units of both fleets. These consisted mainly of torpedo boats, of which Chile acquired a total of twelve and Peru three during 1880- 81.

Major land operations commenced at the end of October 1879 with the amphibious landing of more than 10,000 Chilean troops at Pisagua on what is now the Peruvian coast. After a resolute defense by its small Bolivian garrison, Pisagua was captured on November 2. The Chileans advanced rapidly southward from this beachhead. On November 19, a Chilean force of 6,000 defeated a Confederation force of 9,000 at Pozo Dolores, north of Iquique. As a result of this reverse, the Peruvians abandoned Iquique without a fight. The garrison joined the survivors of the Battle of Pozo Dolores at Tarapacá, where a total Confederation army of 5,000 assembled. Although a reconnaissance force of 2,000 Chileans was routed on November 27, the victorious Confederation forces failed to pursue their advantage, abandoning Tarapacá and retreating to Tacna. The Chileans, now reinforced to 17,000, continued to advance toward Tacna and Arica. A Chilean force of 5,000 carried out an amphibious raid at Ilo, to the north of Tacna, on December 31, and withdrew after capturing and sacking Moquegua, the ruins of which were soon reoccupied by the Peruvians.

Another Chilean amphibious landing established a beachhead at Ilo on February 25, 1880. During the first weeks of March, most of the Chilean forces disembarked. On March 13, a force of about 10,000 men carried out another major landing, at Pacocha, and an additional 3,000 landed at Vítar on March 14. On March 22, these forces, under General Manuel Baquedano González, pushed through the defenses at Moquegua and scored a crushing victory over 2,000 Peruvians at Torata. The Chilean forces now split for a two-pronged attack on Tacna to the south.

A combination of difficult terrain and the constant harassment by Peruvian guerrillas delayed the Chilean advance. It was not until May 26 that Baquedano's forces encountered a combined force of 10,000, which the Confederation had concentrated at Alto de la Alianza, north of Tacna. Baquedano scored another spectacular victory, which split the Bolivian and Peruvian armies; the former retired toward the Altiplano (Bolivia's high plateau), and the latter retreated in the direction of Arequipa. Following this disaster, the Bolivians took no further significant part in operations.

Chilean pressure was now concentrated on Arica, whose 2,000-man garrison surrendered on June 7, 1880. Another lull in major land operations now occurred as the Chileans prepared for the final advance on Lima. At sea several minor Chilean vessels, engaged in the blockade of Callao, fell victim either to shore batteries or to the occasional sallies of Peruvian torpedo boats and armed launches.

By November the Chileans had concentrated 25,000 men at Arica. Reembarking on November 14, this force made an amphibious landing four days later and captured Pisco. During the following weeks, a series of other amphibious landings allowed the Chileans to close in on Lima. On January 13, 1881, a Chilean force under General Baquedano scored a decisive if costly victory at Chorrillos, south of Lima. Two days later, the Peruvians broke an armistice, negotiated under the auspices of the foreign diplomatic corps in Lima. The ensuing Battle of Miraflores resulted in the total rout of the Peruvians and the collapse of their army. Peru's president and his High Command fled into the interior. Lima itself surrendered to the Chileans on January 16, and Callao fell the next day. The Chilean victory was now effectively complete, although guerrilla warfare was to continue another two years. Chile's imaginative combination of land and sea power in the war against Peru and Bolivia had introduced a highly mobile form of amphibious warfare that was without precedent in South America.

Before the victorious Chilean Army was demobilized, it was turned to the pacification of the Araucanians, who had terrorized the southern frontier after the depletion of the regular army garrisons during the war. By the mid-1880s, the authority of the Chilean government was established throughout the national territory. Chile had now emerged as the major military and naval power in Latin America, with a battle-hardened army and an impressive fleet of three ironclads, three cruising vessels, one gunboat, and ten torpedo boats. Its navy outranked all other Latin American navies, as well as the United States Navy, in terms of modern and effective seagoing warships. Thanks to its navy, Chile incorporated Easter Island (Isla de Pascua) into its national territory in 1888.

Data as of March 1994

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